Favorite Books from June and July

It's gonna be a pretty short list this month! I've had a busy time at work and haven't gotten as much reading done as I would like. That being said, I did devour three books by Santino Hassell in about the space of a week, so... well, it's all relative.

An Unnatural Vice

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Boy oh boy, have I been anticipating this book — and yet, it doesn't disappoint. Shitty medium Justin Lazarus gets embroiled in the missing heir plot that began in An Unseen Attraction. He and journalist Nathanial Roy start off as passionate enemies—you know where this is going.

The plotting in this book was extremely tight, and reminded me pleasantly of the intricate criss-crossing from Charles' Society of Gentlemen series. Justin's inclusion in the overarching mystery was seamlessly done, and the trouble that dogs him because of it is delicious and tense. I am a big fan of the main couple as well. Justin and Nathanial clash in all the right ways.

 

Sutphin Boulevard, Sunset Park, First and First

Santino Hassell is one of those authors I've been meaning to read for a long time. You know, when you're sure you're going to like an author's books and all you have to do is take the plunge and get one, and your foul brain is like, "or, you could avoid it for months."

Well, thanks to a Dreamspinner sale I got First and First, the third of Hassell's Five Boroughs series, for 99 cents. No excuses.

These books all center on queer men in contemporary New York City. I love reading about New York from the perspective of a born and bred New Yorker. The details all ring so true.

And Hassell's characters, as well as feeling like real New Yorkers, feel like real people. He writes about complicated issues unflinchingly and strikes right to the heart of all of them. These books deal with addiction, family and romantic relationships all going wrong, financial insecurity, and way more.

I really enjoyed the characters, with all their glorious flaws. Each book introduces characters who will star in another series entry, but none of the connections felt forced. I enjoyed the few cameos that characters make in each others' books.

I'm absolutely going to continue reading the series, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants some intense, well-written, emotionally mature romance, set in the best city in the world.

What's next?

Right now I'm reading Everyone Behaves Badly, a non-fiction book about Hemingway's arrival in Paris and the drama that led to his writing The Sun Also Rises. I'm still working on Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned, and the already fantastic Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue.

Sleep No More and the perfect moment

It's really not often that I let a strange man take my hand and lead me into the dark. Especially not without an introduction. In fact, without even a single word exchanged between us.

Sleep No More changes everything.

It's an interactive, immersive version of Macbeth that plays out over 6 stories of a warehouse in Chelsea. No matter how cool you think that sounds, the reality is cooler. The audience wear masks, and are free to roam at will through the sets—a forest, a speakeasy, a Scottish high street.

The actors, maskless, run amok in this space, doing interpretive dance and occasionally pulling spectators into the scenes. Here's another important rule: as an audience member, you're not allowed to speak.

This results in flocks of  silent, white-masked spectators racing after actors through the dim corridors of the warehouse.

Among other things, being masked completely changes how you interact with people. You don't think about how much energy goes into making proper facial expressions until you no longer have to.

You get to take a break from being a person for awhile.

I didn't realize how freeing this was until I was face-to-face with an actor, and she could emote at me and all I could do was stare at  her, from just a foot away. Reflexively you try to communicate anyway—how do you tell someone you really appreciate their performance with only your eyes?

Back to the man. Back to anonymous intimacy.

I don't date. I don't want to, and I'll get anxious before I get emotionally attached. I'm aromantic—I don't feel romantic attraction, and I don't prioritize romantic relationships. But I get crushes: I've come to know them not as signifiers of romance to come, but as part and parcel of the excitement of meeting someone new and enjoying the freshness of our interactions. Crushes develop into friendship for me.

I love the allure of strangers. I'm a flirt, a terrible flirt, but always on the knife's edge of anxiety that my flirting will be followed up on, and I'll have to let someone down.

Being a (bisexual) woman adds an extra complication. I like men, but flirting with the wrong one can end badly. And I suppose no matter what gender you're attracted to, you don't often get to have intimate, flirtatious contact and then walk away, not without having an awkward conversation at the end of the night.

In a world full of romantics and people wanting more, how often do you get to have a moment? Just one moment, with an understanding of an ending.

Back to the theatre. Back to the dark hallways.

It's difficult to describe how good the Sleep No More actors are at confirming consent. They do it without breaking character, without removing you from the scene, and often without saying a word.

Generally, the actors don't look at you—they have perfected the art of looking through you, as if you're on the other side of an invisible veil. As if you're really the masked ghost that you see in mirrors throughout the space.

A one-on-one begins with eye contact.

Suddenly, a character's eyes will lock with yours. Sometimes it's just that: the look, and they are back in the scene. Sometimes it's more. 

So this character, this actor, looked at me. I had run into him several times over the course of the three-hour show. (It's quite hard to track a single actor through their whole cycle—even if you don't get distracted and wander off, they're likely to lose you in the crowds and the dark.)

But there we were, and I was in the right place at the right time.

It feels special to be seen by an actor at Sleep No More. You feel so God damn special to have been plucked from the faceless crowd and given this gift of intimacy with a perfect stranger.

He took my hand, and held it, both of us silent, me masked. Then we ran. At first a crowd followed us down the stairs, and then we lost them in a still bigger crowd.

He stayed with me until the end of the show, mostly holding my hand, once hugging me as we watched another scene. And at the end of the play he escorted me back to the lobby.

He took off my mask. He said "thank you," and hugged me again. And then he was gone.

Spectators watch a scene at Sleep No More.

Spectators watch a scene at Sleep No More.

How often do you get to have a perfect, intimate experience with a stranger, and feel completely safe? That Sleep No More is a transaction between actor and spectator made it possible for me to enjoy that moment, in all its purity. That's a rare thing.

It's here that I have to praise the actors again, because they do so much emotional and physical work for the benefit of the audience. It looks like the hardest damn job in theatre from the outside. And this happy, joyous, special feeling I got from our encounter—it's lasted for days

Hopefully the actor gathered from my garbled thank yous as we said goodbye that I'm really, really grateful. Shit, I had no idea I even wanted an experience like that, until I got to have it without pressure or fear.

It was honestly like being in a romance novel, only without the falling in love. When else do you get to meet a man and let him take you on a magical adventure within seconds? Without worrying about your safety, or his intentions, or the hard conversations you might need to have?

Sleep No More let me have this snapshot-perfect moment, the kind that a heroine has at the beginning of her story. It made me feel like I was part of something huge, or on the precipice of it. For me, though, I don't need the happily ever after. The beginning is enough. 

Finding Fitzgerald in the village of books

In the south of France, somewhere between the narrow red-brick streets of Toulouse and the high-flung medieval castles at Lastours, is a small village called Montolieu.

In the early 90s it underwent a transformation, and became the Village of Books. In its sleepy streets there are 15 bookstores.

I've been on fruitless quest for books by F. Scott Fitzgerald that aren't hideous. I've found plenty of covers that look like bad 1920s cosplay. I've found covers that are fine... just fine. I've found covers that are abstract, and this makes them better than the bad cosplay covers, which are shameful.

So here in the village of books, I found one of the most beautiful covers for Tender is the Night:

There were old papers in a box by the door, among them some fashion prints from the 1920s, on worringly thin paper. I love how dynamic these figures are!

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Villages like Montolieu frighten me. A lot of villages in France frighten me. They're small, and beautiful, and seem fragile. I don't know how they survive. Montolieu hosts used bookstores, artists and galleries, and apparently a cactus garden. It has a wide-open view of a river, and here you realize the village is precariously built on a cliff-face.

If you're in the Aude departement, please stop by and spend an afternoon here. I could have thrown hours into scrabbling through the discount book boxes. It's places like this that make you think, if you just hope to find something enough, you'll find it.

Favorite books from April and May

If you've been following me on Twitter, you know that my life was recently overtaken by a historical obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald and every damn thing related to the 1920s.

So yes: This list has a bit of a theme. Here are my favorite books from April and May, 2017.

Editor of Genius

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If you're going to completely lose your shit over historical research into the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, like I recently did, I actually recommend starting with this biography of Max Perkins. A. Scott Berg's book is widely praised, and for good reason. It's an interesting, well-written account not just of Perkins' life, but also of the lives of the authors that he worked with, from the 20s through the 40s.

Perkins was the editor for Scott Fizgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Tom Wolfe, and many others. The book includes excerpts of their letters to each other, and clear timelines of their lives. Berg provides context that I found essential to enjoying and understanding the other non-fiction books that I went on to read.

Editor of Genius also has awesome insights into the publishing industry. I loved reading about Perkins' editing, the changes that were made to books like The Great Gatsby to get it in shape for printing, and the general "how things were done" of the age. This book is definitely a keeper for me.

The Great Gatsby

A third-time read for me, and maybe I'm big cliche, but I love The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald's prose is so beautiful, and so magical. Describing characters was one of Fitzgerald's strengths. Ironically, one of the big edits that Perkins suggested for this book was that Scott didn't describe Gatsby enough. Changes were made, and now Gatsby has some of the most incisive character descriptions I've ever read.

Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face, and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body — he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.

This book holds up, in beauty and in readability. It's one of my favorites.

Dear Scott/Dear Max

The second of my non-fiction binge books contains the collected letters between Fitzgerald and Max Perkins. Some I had already read in the Perkins biography. Here they're presented without commentary and minimal context (there are some great and useful footnotes), hence the Perkins biography feeling pretty crucial to my understanding of this book.

That being said, I love it. Certain paragraphs were cut out, which makes me feel like I have to track down the original letters just in case I missed some good dirt. I love the chatty, depressing, witty, lyrical way that Scott writes his letters. I found it sad and illuminating to see someone who is now considered one of the great American authors, openly struggling with his alcoholism, depression, and imposter syndrome. Fitzgerald is very flawed and very relatable, and I appreciate that his writing, letters included, has been so well-preserved.

The Changeover

Brief non-non-fiction break! The Changeover, by Margaret Mahy, was recommended (and bought for me) by Amanda Jean. What a fantastic book. It's the story of Laura Chant, a teenage girl whose brother is cursed, and who has to turn to the hot older boy witch in her school for help. It's incredibly well-written YA that doesn't condescend, talks honestly about sex, and magical metaphors for sex and puberty, and the prose is beautiful!

The characterization was also fantastic — I especially appreciated Laura's mother, who feels very real. And the magic in this book! It's creepy and delightful. The villain, in particular, is unforgettably horrifying.

Passing

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Nella Larsen's Passing is the 1929 story of two black women who grew up in the same neighborhood. Clare has married a white man and is passing as white, while Irene is active in the black community in Harlem. Clare Kendry is a really vivid, memorable character. Every single description of her leaps off the page. The whole book is wonderfully written, with beautiful prose and character descriptions, and it feels so alive and relevant — even 88 years after it was first written.

 

 

 

 

Fitzgerald and Hemingway - A Dangerous Friendship

The cherry on my miserable non-fiction sundae, this is the definitive book collecting the letters between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, over the course of their depressing-ass friendship. I felt that Bruccoli (who has apparently devoted his career to documenting these assholes) was very fair to both Scott and Ernest — not allowing either to be demonized, or lionized. He also doesn't let Hemingway get away with any of the inconsistencies that he introduced into the narrative of their friendship (lying about their first meetings, Scott's behavior, etc.).

I just finished this book so I'm still a little raw, but it really hit me emotionally. The Fitzgerald/Hemingway friendship was very intense, and watching it implode slowly is rough. The things they said about each other were beautiful and they were hurtful. I appreciated that Bruccoli lets the book close with excerpts of Scott's Notebooks, and every reference that he ever wrote about Hemingway. Hemingway lived 20 years longer than Scott, and spent those years writing and saying things of various levels of unkindness about him. It felt fitting to let Fitzgerald get a tiny, last hurrah in the final section of this book. 

Heck yeah, a newsletter

I'm starting a newsletter! Why?

ONE REASON:

It would be cool to share BIG news and bits of what I'm working on with you! When you sign up and confirm subscription to the newsletter, you'll get an email with a snippet of whatever I'm writing right at this moment.

I'll send out updates when I have new books coming out. And when I have free reads! I have a few fun things planned, like extra scenes with Jiyoon and Danny from The Trouble.

That's pretty much it! You can sign up at the link below if you want in.

Favorite books from February and March

I didn't read as many books in February and March as I did in January—mostly because I'm a big cheater and started all my January books in December. So I'm shifting this to a bi-monthly reading list.

Here are some of my favorites.

An Unseen Attraction

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Unseen Attraction is the first in the SIns of the Cities trilogy from KJ Charles. It has left me eagerly awaiting to see where things are going—and with some very enthusiastic theories.

The main pairing in this book is so sweet. They're two people who are very good at their non-flashy jobs, and genuinely enjoy what they do—and they enjoy each other just as much. It felt like a fresh relationship for me as a reader, and Clem and Rowley's sweetness offset the big old ugly world that they're in perfectly.

 

 

Peter Darling

I got the best of both worlds here — I beta'd the first half of Peter Darling, and then was able to read the full (very different published version), and wow. It's a fantastic, magical, beautiful story. As beautiful as the cover is, the words inside it live up to the challenge.

It explores a trans Peter Pan coming back to Neverland and trying to figure out why he's grown up into such an asshole and no one wants to play with him anymore. Meanwhile James Hook briefly enjoys the return of his rival, and then falls rather unfortunately in love. This is a great, breezy, but emotional read.

 

 

The Lawrence Browne Affair

Cat Sebastian's second book sees the return of the STEALTH STAR OF THE FIRST BOOK, George Turner. Georgie immediately caught my attention in the way that all the best side characters do. He's clever and has questionable morals, so obviously I greatly enjoyed seeing him confront his emotions and fall in love.

There is also a Cute Dog and great neurodivergent representation in this! I can't wait for the third book in the series. Check out The Soldier's Scoundrel for the first.

 

 

 

A Gentleman in the Street

Oh, how I love Alisha Rai. Gentleman follows two embittered people who have secretly had the hots for each other for years. It has a male lead learning to embrace his wild side, and a female lead who embraced it long ago, but still carries baggage from a complicated, resentful relationship with her parents. She doesn't let it stop her from having a great fucking time, though. Akira Mori is just... ah, such a fantastic character. I loved her cameo in the Fantasy series and I was so happy to read her book.

Also, as I may have mentioned in January, Alisha Rai writes great sex scenes. Period.

 

Flight of Magpies

I reread the entire Magpie trilogy (and finally the in-between-book) shorts this year. Flight of Magpies gets a special call-out. It's a great book, and a fitting denouement for one of my favorite fictional couples. I love the way Stephen and Crane's relationship grows over the course of these three books. Their problems always feel real and pressing, and they confront them like adults. There's drama, but there's not drama.

KJ Charles' writing evolves just as much as the main pairing. I love all the Magpie books, but you can clearly see how much she grew as a writer between the first and the third. There's a lesson if you ever feel intimidated—you can work fucking hard and release beloved books, and still get even better.

Yes, Roya

Popping a graphic novel on this list because yes. A coworker sold me on this one. It's loosely based on the real poly relationship that the creator of Wonder Woman was in. It's about a young, aspiring comic strip artist who ends up falling in the lap (literally) of his role model—an older domme, and her long-term partner.

Best friends threesomes follow. It's fantastic.